Greenland is increasingly dealing with the important influx of tourists, attracted by the grandiose landscapes covered with ice and surrounded by icebergs on an island that is already under the threat of climate change.
Leaving the airport in Ilulissat, the third largest city in the autonomous territory of Denmark, a landscape of rare beauty is discovered, with gray rocks and icebergs in the background.
Exceptional blocks of ice constantly leave the neighboring fjord into the open sea, where whales sometimes appear.
These postcard landscapes attracted 50,000 people in 2021, ten times the number of inhabitants in the port city. More than half of the tourists are crossing the Arctic and make only a brief stop on the island.
The number of visitors is expected to increase even more with the opening of an international airport over the next few years, which will not only stimulate the island’s revenue but also be a challenge.
Currently, the island is dealing with the daily effects of global warming and is already dealing with a delicate ecosystem.
“The Glacier Recedes”
According to the most recent study on the subject, the Arctic has warmed approximately four times faster than the rest of the world in the last 40 years.
“We can see more and more the consequences of climate change: the icebergs are smaller, the glacier is retreating”, explains the mayor of Ilulissat, Palle Jeremiassen.
The senior official also fears thawing permafrost, which threatens the stability of homes and other infrastructure. The challenge now is to protect the local ecosystem, but without closing the door on visitors.
“We want to control the arrival of highly polluting tourist boats”, explains Jeremiassen. To respect the community and the environment, “limit one boat per day and each one with 1,000 tourists”, he adds.
Recently, three boats with a total of 6,000 visitors arrived on the same day. For the mayor this is a very high number, as the city cannot accommodate them or guarantee that they respect protected areas, especially in the fjord.
“We don’t want to be like Iceland. We don’t want mass tourism. We want to control tourism, that’s the key”, points out the city manager.
Greenland has enjoyed its autonomy since 2009, but hopes to achieve full independence from Denmark one day. For that, it would have to waive the Copenhagen subsidy, which currently represents a third of its budget.
However, it still hasn’t found a way to remain financially independent and, for now, its main natural resource is in the sea.
One in three inhabitants of Ilulissat makes a living from fishing, which accounts for most of the island’s income. However, climate change has a major impact on local practices.
“When I was young, there was hard ice that we could walk on,” explains Lars Noasen as he navigates among the icebergs in Disko Bay.
In recent decades, Greenland’s immense ice sheet has lost 4.7 billion tonnes, which has contributed to a 1.2-centimeter increase in the oceans, according to Danish Arctic researchers.
“Ice conditions change,” says Greenland Institute of Natural Resources researcher Sascha Schiøtt. “The main fjord used to be closed off by huge icebergs and ice, and navigators couldn’t navigate between it”, which is now possible.
Now the boats can go out all year round, which has caused an increase in fishing activity. However, fish size is decreasing mainly due to overfishing.
For fisherman Ejner, however, climate change is to blame. “The weather is too hot,” he laments as he prepares his fishing nets in the town’s harbor.